ST. PETERSBURG — The date is circled on her calendar. It's one she won't forget.
April 19, 2008. She scaled her home to clean berries and leaves from the roof that day. The ladder slipped. She fell and slammed her head somewhere on a barbecue grill below.
Darlene Brewer, 47, celebrated with dozens like her Friday at Bayfront Medical Center. They had all survived traumatic brain injuries with treatment at the hospital. They reunite every year with updates on their good days, their bad days, their progress.
Just days earlier, actor Natasha Richardson had died after hitting her head in a ski accident. The news chilled the survivors, who understand the utter disruption that one blow can bring.
They fell from balconies. They were hit by cars or trains. They dived and swam and played sports, and in all cases, their brains met a blunt force.
"I thought I saw the light," said John DeCaire, 57, of Seminole. "Unfortunately, it was the light of a trailer truck. I got run over. They said I'd never walk or talk again. That was 13 years ago, and I'm doing darn good."
An arm or a leg is a part of a person. The brain, though, is the person. The stakes are different. Sometimes a traumatic brain injury patient lies in a coma for months, never fully finding his old self. Others, like Brewer, have to relearn things that a child knows.
"I didn't know my birthday," said Brewer of St. Petersburg, who now only occasionally loses a memory or a word. "They would show me a picture of a banana, a flower, a fish, a hammer. I didn't know what I was supposed to know."
Survivors want to spread statistics. For example, more than 210,000 Floridians live with disabilities from traumatic brain injuries. And, they say, it's sad that a celebrity had to die to bring the issue to light.
"It seems like it just was this accident that happened that was out of the blue that doesn't happen every day," said Anne Mierau, a speech language pathologist at Bayfront. "But it happens to someone every 23 seconds."
It happened to Ian Tilmann. He was 28, an avid skateboarder who in 2005 hit his bare head during a night of skating with friends in Clearwater. Ten days later, he died.
Now, his parents pass out free helmets to people who promise to wear them.
"You are all very, very lucky to be here," said Marcy Tilmann. "If you have a child, please put a helmet on his head."
At the reunion, the survivors gathered for a group picture. A photographer climbed a ladder, a helmet perched on his head.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.